I’ve just started re-reading the Bill Bryson book “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” If you don’t know Bill Bryson, he’s an American who moved to England, loved it, married an Englishwoman, and stayed. He’s written books and newspaper columns and TV shows about his love of the UK and he’s slowly become what the English like to call “a national treasure.” He’s still there now, living in an old vicarage in Norfolk, but in the 90s, he briefly moved back to America and he wrote a book about the experience of being a stranger in his home country. Obviously this is of special interest to me as we plan for our move but I highly recommend it to anyone, because Bill Bryson is fun no matter where you live.
This part made me laugh out loud:
Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking from a long coma. Time, you discover, has wrought changes that leave you feeling mildly foolish and out of touch. You proffer hopelessly inadequate sums when making small purchases. You puzzle over ATM machines and automated gas pumps and pay phones, and are astounded to discover, by means of a stern grip on your elbow, that gas station road maps are no longer free.
It is disconcerting to find yourself so simultaneously in your element and out of it. I can enumerate all manner of minutiae that mark me out as an American—which of the fifty states has a unicameral legislature, what a squeeze play is in baseball, who played Captain Kangaroo on TV. I even know about two-thirds of the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is more than some people know who have sung it publicly.
But send me to the hardware store and even now I am totally lost. For months I had conversations with the clerk at our local True-Value that went something like this:
“Hi. I need some of that goopy stuff you fill nail holes in walls with. My wife’s people call it Pollyfilla.”
“Ah, you mean spackle.”
“Very possibly. And I need some of those little plastic things that you use to hold screws in the wall when you put shelves up. I know them as rawl plugs.”
“We call them anchors.”
“I shall make a mental note of it.”
Really, I could hardly have felt more foreign if I had stood there dressed in lederhosen.
I remember a trip home years ago when I decided to take the bus into York and suddenly realized, as I stepped up to the driver, that I had no idea what to do next. Was I supposed to give him my money? He wasn’t holding out his hand. Was I supposed to use the little machine next to him? If so, how? I remember just staring at the driver, my mouth slightly open, wondering how bad it would look if I just jumped off and pretended it was all a mistake.
And what makes it worse is the accent. If you have an American accent and freeze when you get on the bus, the driver will completely understand. How could you be expected to know what you’re doing when you’re from another country? But with my accent, there was really no excuse other than some kind of cognitive disability or a recent head injury, which is probably why the driver spoke so slowly as he explained what to do.
And my problems are compounded by the fact that I’ve lived in three different countries, not two, so my head is filled with words, ideas and statutory holidays that apply in one country but not the other two. For example, a long vehicle carrying commercial goods is a truck in Canada and the US, and a lorry in England. I’ve got that one straight. But you know those roads that take you on and off a highway (motorway/freeway)? Those are ‘slip roads’ in England and ‘collector lanes’ in Canada but I can never remember what they’re called here.
And the national holidays completely throw both of us off – especially now that we run our own business from home. There’s no one to tell us “next Monday is Memorial Day” and who knows whether Easter is a national holiday here or not. (It’s not but I always have to think about it). And we got used to one Thanksgiving in Canada but there’s a different one here. And when we get back we’ll lose them both of course, although we’ll gain Guy Fawkes night which is not a bad trade-off.
Because I never know when the holidays are, I’m constantly promising projects to clients on Thanksgiving or Labor (labour) Day and then feeling compelled to deliver on time, so that those particular clients must think I’m unusually dedicated, what with never taking a day off.
All in all, reading “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” is reminding me just how weird and confusing, but also exciting, it’s going to be when we get home. Be patient with us, England. We’ll be doing our best.